UNHCR chief joins visit to Dadaab, expresses concern for Somali refugees

The UN refugee agency and two sister organizations deeply concerned about the living conditions of more than 314,000 Somalis refugees in north-east Kenya.

High Commissioner Guterres, WFP's Josette Sheeran and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet in Dadaab.  © UNHCR/R.Hakozaki

DADAAB, Kenya, April 4 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency and two sister organizations expressed deep concern at the weekend about the living conditions of more than 314,000 Somalis at a sprawling refugee complex in north-east Kenya.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran and Michelle Bachelet, executive director for UN Women, spoke of their concern during a visit on Sunday to Dadaab, where refugees are arriving daily, crowding more people into one of the largest refugee concentrations in the world.

Drought and two decades of violence have forced Somalis to flee their country and take refuge at the three Dadaab camps, which were originally designed to accommodate a total of 90,000 people.

"After more than 20 years of war, Somali refugees have become a true global population. The majority are here in Kenya and in Djibouti, Yemen and Ethiopia, but Somalis have sought refuge in countries on all five continents," Guterres said in a joint press statement

"As the war continues unabated, I appeal to all countries in the world to keep their borders open and to allow them to live in dignity," added the High Commissioner. He also appealed to the Kenyan government to allow the completion of an additional refugee residential area in Dadaab.

WFP's Sheeran said she had been moved after meeting Somali women and children who had fled conflict and arrived in Kenya traumatized and suffering from malnutrition. "It is vital that we as United Nations agencies are here to protect them and provide the food and shelter they need as refugees in Dadaab," she stressed.

The joint statement noted that the high concentration of refugees in an already harsh environment has had a negative impact on the camp surroundings. The UN and other groups are working with villagers from surrounding areas to find sustainable local solutions such as water and soil conservation, it added.

To avoid the surrounding land being stripped bare in the search for firewood, humanitarian agencies have given refugees energy-saving stoves that use less fuel.

Poor hygiene and sanitation as a result of congestion in the camps exposes refugees to health hazards and security threats. In some cases, one latrine is shared by about 300 people. The press release said women and children were particularly vulnerable, even when they reach the Dadaab camps.

"In addition to having to flee from their homes, women are exposed to sexual violence," Bachelet said, adding: "We must continue to do our utmost to protect girls and women, while also supporting their contribution as productive community members."

On top of rising tension in the camps because of overcrowding, UN agencies are alert to the possibility of an influx of more refugees from neighbouring countries and the potential impact this has on regional security.